Jump to page content

Purdue students design hydropower system for African village

By Emil Venere

Purdue students design hydropower system for African village

Author: Emil Venere
Magazine Section: Change The World
College or School: CoE
Article Type: Article
A team of Purdue University undergraduate students has won a $75,000 national competition to help officials build a small hydropower system to provide electricity for vital services, homes and schools in a village in Cameroon, Africa.

The students who designed the hydropower system were one of five winning teams among 55 competing universities. The project is funded through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's People, Prosperity and the Planet - or P3 - program.

Officials in the village of Bangang have been attempting to install hydropower systems, but previous efforts have lacked engineering expertise, said Klein E. Ileleji, an associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering, the principal investigator and co-adviser in the project.

The system will power a mini power grid, providing about 150 kilowatts, or enough electricity for about 1,000 homes or 50 schools. The plant will provide power for drinking water systems, homes, health-care facilities and other entities required to upgrade rural communities.

The project was conceived two years ago when the team received $10,000 in first-phase funding. The team won the second phase of funding, $75,000, during the seventh Annual National Sustainable Design Expo 2011 in April in Washington, D.C.

"This was a group effort, several disciplines and departments bringing their different experience to the project," said Ileleji, who is working with co-principal investigator and co-adviser John Lumkes, an associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering. "We now plan to implement the project on the ground in Bangang this summer through the College of Engineering's Global Engineering Program."

The system will use a turbine to harness a waterfall, and the students are working with the African Centre for Renewable Energy and Sustainable Technology, or ACREST.

The project includes students from agricultural and biological engineering, civil engineering, mechanical engineering and electrical and computer engineering.

The hydropower project is sorely needed in Bangang, where residents have no access to basic services and have to travel long distances for water. Kerosene lamps are the only lighting systems available.

"Electric power is one of the basic needs for the development of any community," said Caitlin Kincaid, a mechanical engineering senior from Fishers, Ind. "Without power, most rural communities in Africa are lacking amenities such as clean drinking water, power for equipment in health and dental clinics, computers for schools, radios, and the operation of equipment in small cottage industries."

The project was divided into three areas: mechanical design, environmental impact assessment and social impact assessment. Students had to demonstrate how the hydropower system would contribute to the prosperity of the community and describe its potential impacts on the people and planet.

Austin White, a senior in agricultural and biological engineering, worked with civil engineering students Patrick Ransdell and Zena Njuki in creating an assessment of the project's impact on the environment. The students also contributed information critical to the design, including data on the waterfall's seasonal flow rates.

The team designed the system to have a variable inlet, which compensates for seasonal changes to water flowing from the source and keeps the turbine's performance steady.

"They have very distinct rainy and dry seasons, and the flow rate changes," said Kincaid, who led the team of mechanical engineering students designing the turbine.

White and Kincaid traveled to Cameroon last May to conduct a site analysis under the guidance of Ileleji and Laurent Ahiablame, a graduate student in agricultural and biological engineering.

"This project has influenced my academic career by incorporating both an international and culturally sensitive perspective to my engineering studies," said White, who is from Cedarburg, Wis. "I feel more prepared to take on projects in the workplace, understanding that each project has not only technical criteria and hurdles, but also social and cultural contexts."

Alejandro Lara, a junior in mechanical engineering and exchange student from Monterrey Technology Institute in Mexico, and Julia Liston, a sophomore in electrical and computer engineering, focused on the project's social impact, as well as social and cultural considerations. Four other mechanical engineering seniors involved in the project are Jessica Hahn of Blaine, Minn.; Samhita Pennathur of Shaker Heights, Ohio; Corinne Busemeyer of Milford, Ohio; and Keith Miller, from Springfield, Ohio. Ahiablame also was a mentor and co-advised the team.

The team received assistance from Jon Bricker and Rob Snorek of the Agricultural Communications Exhibit Center to develop an exhibit of the project. The exhibit will be shown at events on campus, fairs and the Children's Museum of Indianapolis to encourage students to pursue studies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, fields.

The team also wrote a manual, "How to Build a Community Hydropower Plant," for use by other communities.

Three students from the current team will be going to Bangang over the summer through the Global Engineering Program, supervised by Lumkes. New teams will be formed to pursue Phase II of the project, and interested students can get involved through the Global Engineering Program. A trip is planned to build and install the hydropower system on site in Bangang during Maymester.